Minneapolis mentoring smorgasbord: A taste of success


Minneapolis political and civic leaders are looking to boost local mentoring programs in an effort to reduce youth violence—and they have a smorgasbord of “mentoring” options to consider. But what works?

The term “mentoring” captures a wide sweep of initiatives. Hennepin County has 90 mentoring programs, according to the Mentoring Partnership of Minnesota’s database, ranging from one-to-one programs such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters to group after-school programs, such as Athletes Committed to Educating Students (ACES). Mentoring includes faith-based, art-based and work-based programs. It includes telefriends and e-mentoring. Mentoring ranges from large programs such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to smaller programs, such as Abraham Lincoln School’s tutoring/mentoring program for immigrant and refugee youth.

Second in a series of three articles on mentoring and the Minneapolis Blueprint for Ending Youth Violence
MAD DADS push mentoring in Minneapolis: Civic leaders plan broad citywide effort
Minneapolis mentoring smorgasbord: A taste of success
From “Babas” to “Play Moms,” mentoring goes multicultural

City staff and others are working to flesh out the 34 broad strategies outlined in the recently released Blueprint for Action: Preventing Youth Violence. A key recommendation is: “Ensure there is a trusted adult in the life of every young person in Minneapolis by increasing the number of quality mentoring programs.” A detailed plan, expected in May, should shed some light on defining quality.

Want to get involved?

Here is a list of Hennepin County mentoring programs.

Here is the Minneapolis Blueprint for Youth Violence Prevention.

A brief history

The term mentor comes from Greek mythology. Odysseus asked his friend Mentor to care for his son while he went to fight in the Trojan Wars.

Studies have long shown benefits from mentoring. Philadelphia-based Public Private Ventures released a study in 1995 showing youth mentored by Big Brothers/Big Sisters were more likely to stay in school and use less violent ways to resolve conflict.

Dale Blyth, Associate Dean and Center Director, University of Minnesota Extension Center for Youth Development, was involved in efforts to increase mentoring in the Twin Cities in the early 1990s and has followed the topic since. He said the mentoring field has suffered from a wide diversity of programs—some probably of limited or negative impact because they are not paying attention to what makes a good mentor.

“The thing that almost killed mentoring is that it started to be used as a generic without a lot of qualifiers on what quality mentoring looks like,” he said. The thinking went, “If mentoring is good, let’s get as many of them as we can as cheaply as we can and we will solve all of our problems.”

Blyth cited several keys to successful mentoring, based on the Public Private Ventures analysis. First, mentoring works better if it is multidimensional. “So it’s not just tutoring, but you also see them socially,” he said. “The more kinds of activities you do together – in other words, the more of a relationship you have – the more likely the mentoring will be powerful.” Second, the relationship should last six months or more.

The mentor’s motivation also matters, he said: “Mentors who go in to save kids are less effective than mentors who want to develop a relationship.”

The Mentoring Partnership of Minnesota is taking a hard look at how to define quality mentoring, said Executive Director Joellen Gonder-Spacek. Historically, her organization took a big tent approach, welcoming any organization that said it did mentoring. Now it is focusing less on numbers and more on quality, working to adopt formal standards for management and evaluations. “We are clearly shifting, putting less emphasis on the big tent,” she said.

Trying to measure quality

Mentoring and other community-based programs for youth are under increased pressure from government and others to show tangible results. Funders want proof—a test score, an attendance rate, a recidivism rate, a number of some sort—that money is well spent.

Individual mentoring programs have come up with their own success measures. Some survey parents, students and mentors. ACES uses school-based measures. ACES runs an after school mentoring program in four Minneapolis and St. Paul schools, serving 400 children. Its participants have a slightly higher school attendance rate than non-participants, about 2 percent, said Executive Director Penny Reynen. “We hope that means more attachment to school.”

Reynen said she is talking to school officials about how to best evaluate the program. “If a student isn’t making academic progress in their school work during the day, what can I do in two and a half hours twice a week?” she asked. “I don’t mean to say we are not responsible at all. I am just looking for a way to actually measure it.”

A Juvenile Supervision Center initiative highlights new efforts to track results of individual youth-serving programs. The Supervision Center is the place police bring youth for curfew and truancy violations, underage drinking and other offenses not serious enough to land them in Juvenile Detention.

David Brummel, senior planning analyst for Hennepin County, said data sharing agreements allow staff to review a youth’s school attendance records, prior juvenile arrests, and county databases to see if the youth has received child protection or other county services. (The staff doesn’t see details, only that the youth had a prior contact with “the system.”) Based on the red flags, the Center staff will work to connect the youth with help—mentoring, treatment or other support.

And here is the new wrinkle.

Brummel said the Juvenile Supervision Center staff is going to create formal data sharing relationships with youth-serving organizations. It will show if a youth followed up with a mentoring program or other service. It also will allow the Center to connect that information with whether the youth receiving services continued to have attendance problems or scrapes with the law.

“This will show which ones [organizations] are doing innovative, great stuff that is having positive long-term outcomes—and which programs not so much,” Brummel said.

The big picture

Gretchen Musicant, commissioner of the city Department of Health and Family Support, said the new youth violence prevention initiative is committed to look at results. It identified nine major indicators it expects to improve, including youth homicide rates, curfew and truancy pick-ups, teen pregnancy and high school graduation rates.

Many things affect a youth’s well-being—schools, parents, neighborhoods and individual programs, such as mentoring. Musicant said she doesn’t know how much the city will be able or want to measure every mentored youth around the city to see what happens to them. “Are we going to know this [mentoring] was the needle that moved this kid?” she asked. “I don‘t know.’

“I don’t think we will be able to say this one thing is the silver bullet.”

Scott Russell scottrussell@usfamily.net is a journalist. He wrote for the Southwest Journal and Skyway News (now the Downtown Journal) in Minneapolis from 1999-2005. He also wrote for The Capital Times, a Madison Wisconsin daily, from 1993-1999.